Taste

One of my pet hates is the idea of 'opinion'. Opinion went from being a quite minor, useful idea to something much more sinister, and sinister not least because the bastardisation of the idea all gets carried out under the banner of incredibly noble principles.


You'd be an idiot to deny that people have different opinions about things. No problem there. I guess most basically that means they don't agree on things - what music is good, what food is good, etc. If you want to use the word opinion to describe this basic fact, that people don't agree on things, then it's not a big deal.


However things have progressed. Opinion has become a much bigger idea than that. Because added to "that's just my opinion" is now "it's all just a matter of opinion". Whoa there. Opinion is now not just one person's view on something, but something a lot stronger - things that people have opinions about have no value in themselves, except their great good luck in having some person like them. There is no scale of value beyond somebody liking something, and if I like A and you like B, we can't say anything at all about the relative merits of A or B, because any value A or B have is purely what's put there by me and you.


This is stupid. And pretty obviously another extreme type of vanity - nothing in the world has any value whatsoever unless some human being has bothered to notice it. That excuses pretty much any sort of rape, pillage and destruction, so long as some person thinks that's OK, in their opinion. (As Chief Wiggum says, I'm happy for you to do what feels good for you, provided you don't snap my undies.) But at the same time this state of affairs is held in mighty esteem, because it apparently recognises the inviolable right of each person to have their view on something and not be able to be told that it's in some way deficient. So "each to their own" has taken on an almost religiosity, and you're some kind of modern Genghis Khan if you think this is all bunkum.


It's another dualism really. Because for most people the idea that a glass of wine or painting or piece of music can be in itself 'good' or 'bad' in any way seems nonsense (i.e. there's no value in the object), then all of the value must reside in the person valuing it (the subject). But it doesn't actually make the slightest bit of difference whether you say value is in the subject or object, because in either case you're left with something that is a closed shop - not to be discussed. Value is either just there and unchanging (if it's in the object) or completely arbitrary and changing (i.e. just a 'matter of opinion') for each person if in the subject.


Dualisms are always stupid. Stupid because they split some state of affairs artificially into two extremes, when in reality everything is actually happening in the middle. Some people try to make peace with dualisms by finding a middle ground between them, as if you could blend a bit from each extreme and have a happy compromise. But if you take one step back and question why the whole thing was split into those extremes in the first place, then the middle ground looks just as stupid as the extremes. 'Warm' isn't a blend of or half-way between 'hot' and 'cold', because hot and cold are entirely relative terms to begin with. When does something switch from being warm to hot, or from warm to cold? How would you define that switch? It's a nonsense. 


So where does value live, and why is it OK to talk about the value of things, with some things being better than others, and some things worse, without you having to whip yourself in penance for being such a dictator? Value comes from the act of valuing itself. It's an activity, not a label. As Hennion et al say in their great article Questions of Taste (in "Making Things Public" - a collection of essays from an exhibition a few years ago - I can give you the exact reference if you're interested):


Taste is not an attribute or a property (of a thing or person). Neither tastes nor their objects are given or determined; one must make them appear together, through progressively adjusted, repeated experiments. Taste is a job for enthusiasts; the meticulous activity is a machinery to bring forth through contact and to infinitely multiply differences indissociably "in" the objects tasted and "in" the sensibility of the taster.


So if you like wine, and you don't believe for a second that its worth is all just in the tongue of the beholder, then you'll be privvy to a collection of techniques of tasting and appreciation, developed over centuries and always refined, which you can either do well or not. A good wine taster can draw upon all of this with great skill, discerning differences and subtleties in the taste itself which the untrained person wouldn't even notice. Similarly if you spend a lot of time working with music, listening to it and getting to hear nuances and patterns that the casual listener doesn't even notice, then you're going to have a much more refined sense of what a good piece of music is, and what one that is less good is.


(Some people come back here by saying that even people who do all of this work to get to know their objects don't always agree on what's great and what isn't. But if you look closely they do all tend to agree on perhaps a collection of items that are good, but they may rank them slightly differently. They wouldn't for example rank Ken Done alongside Rembrandt, but they may differ as to whether they think Rembrandt is the equal of Cezanne. But they'd likely have Rembrandt and Cezanne in the same top group, recognising that these painters captured and produced more reality in what they painted, produced more true nuances etc.)

And we need to get back to those sheep (last post), because one of the lessons they taught is that there is no stable, unchanging essence underneath any object. So there is no single true taste or value, each methodology you use to evaluate something will elicit different aspects of what you're evaluating. In fact, as Hennion notes above, taste (or smell, or music...) actually only emerges IN the interaction of the person with the object. It doesn't pre-exist that interaction. So great artists, for example, are those who manage to produce more things in interaction with their object of attention - who show more of the potentialities, usually in surprising ways (because they take something we've just assumed to be lump X and show that it actually also can be A, B and C).

So we can have debates about which band is better than some other band, or which writer is better than another, and so on, without having to qualify every second word with caveats like "oh, but that's just my opinion". 

Nobody cares that it's you who likes something. It's not about you.  And don't dress that up as you being the noble one, valiantly defending your right to like whatever you like. You can like whatever you want. But making all value revolve around your personal little Godhead is about as vain as it's possible to be. 


Comments

  1. Right on Nick. And with activity comes diversity, and the end of the 'classical' versus 'modern' dualism, or the 'primitive' versus the 'sophisticated'. Picasso for example knew the value of African art as a source of inspiration (call it a homage or a rip, whatever). And if artists hadn't created objects (or wine-makers wine) these past few thousand years, we'd be a little short on things about which to be subjective. The activity of artists rewards an active response, but opinions come easy ...

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  2. It's insulting to artists to make the definition of what they do just the titillation of peoples' little subjective fantasy worlds. Like fluffers on a porn set. They (artists, not fluffers) more than anyone else devise new ways for use to see and hear and experience things.

    Always loved that Alas Smith and Jones sketch, where a group of friends are sitting around talking about art. One smug git pipes up and says "I don't know much about art, but I know what i like."

    "Oh?", says a friend, "and what's that then?"

    "Stock car racing."

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  3. It seems to me that you're saying that the object has no intrinsic value. The tree, the diamond, the apple is not in itself "beautiful" or "ugly", "delicious" or "nasty-tasting." And you're also saying that the person can like or dislike, value something however they do value it, as in your example of the art critic who likes stock-car racing. So the whole discussion of taste is a matter of parsing one's criteria for their evaluation of the object. And so we have informed opinion vs. uninformed, or the wine taster who knows what they're talking about vs. the guy like myself who gets something cheap and likes it more or less and knows he likes reds of certain sorts with certain sorts of food, all very vague, uninformed and it actually makes me a fairly easily-satisfied customer and dinner guest (in case you're looking for one.) I find nothing to argue with in any of that. However, when one looks at the world from the perspective of the individual, of whatever sophistication or not, then the "value" of anything, does seem to me indeed simply intrinsic in the criteria of that individual, no more or no less. The value refers to the object, EG that particular wine, it is felt by the individual, i.e. I LIKE it, but that experience depends almost solely on the criteria, i.e. I LIKE it because my taste has developed to such and such an extent. The result being that I probably like more wines than someone who knows something, but the informed individual probably has a keener pleasure or displeasure in the same wine I might just like or dislike in a vague sort of way. And so yes that's an activity but the basic landscape of the experience still places the "value" of a thing almost entirely in the criteria one is using. (understanding that "criteria" embraces all the history of experience someone has around the item.) So, that's the way it seems to me, and I have no judgment of another theory as authoritarian in some way. BenKoftheUSA

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  4. Hi Ben

    I think you've put your finger on it - it's the criteria that are the essence of the process. Sophisticated appreciation of something is all about having sophisticated criteria for evaluation. Which in practical terms means you've interrogated whatever the object is in more ways, and in more subtle and skillful ways. As opposed to the black and white dichotomy of "I like it" or "I don't like it".

    But criteria are not things that belong to a person or "I". The criteria people use are always shared, and evaluated themselves within the group of people who are evaluating the object. So for example wine tasters share a common vocabulary and set of techniques developed over centuries, these criteria don't belong to any one person. And they're always evolving, as newer tastes are developed with new techniques (because wine itself has no stable, underlying thing called 'taste', it responds differently to whatever technique and instrument is brought to it).

    Oh, and we take a very similar approach to wine, I should say! So would make excellent dinner guests. That's an important point, that people can choose (or have to, because life is finite) whether they wish to engage more fully in any given area - whether they care to become enthusiasts of painting or wine or books or whatever, and work hard to learn in those areas. However if they choose not to do that for some given thing, then they can't have it both ways and say that their tastes in that area are equal in value to those who do engage more fully, with that thing. I see that all the time, people criticising others for saying that this or that piece of music is better than another, or this or that painting etc., when they have almost no background in that area and therefore have no real criteria to make these assessments. That's pure vanity, for mine, to think that your value of things is equal to that of a person who has devoted a fair chunk of their life to learning in that area.

    And at the end of the day this way of looking at value also shows that something being 'better' means nothing more than it illuminates things, throws into relief more aspects of things, delights and surprises. It's not a moralistic inflation or putting down, it's a quite practical recognition of the value of hard work and discernment, and of enjoyment and understanding which flows from that. So value was hijacked by a dualistic morality, when in fact it's a very practical thing.

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  5. Good topic Nick. I live with a painter (amateur) who has the eye. I've worked with DOP's who have the eye, a different kind but still through hard work and the blessings of the genes, an intrinsic understanding of the frame and the light within it. I've worked with musos who've got the 'ear', and hear things, subtleties and nuances that escaped me until they pointed it out.

    Now they might work on shows I don't like, and people have no need to embrace any of the arts or the works of artists (trad ballet!), but it's profoundly ignorant and arrogant to confuse "I don't like it" with the skills embedded in the work, or the skills and work required to get a better and deeper understanding of it.

    I drink rough red because it's the proper thing for poverty stricken wankers, but if somebody opens a good bottle of old Penfolds (BF, before Fosters) I still have enough taste buds to see why it's better and worth the money I don't have. Thank the lord there's some reward for killing so many brain cells over so many years.

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  6. HI Nick, you say “people have different opinions about things… it’s not a big deal.”
    Then in your reply to me you say, “But criteria are not things that belong to a person or ‘I’. The criteria people use are always shared, and evaluated themselves within the group of people who are evaluating the object.” and elsewhere: “But making all value revolve around your personal little Godhead is about as vain as it's possible to be. “
    You have two different ideas here, “people have different opinions about things…” and “The criteria people use are always shared…” These two are simply not reconcilable. The criteria are not always shared, they are sometimes shared, sometimes not. People have different opinions about things because they are all unique, each of them different. When they speak of the same thing, whether wine or picture or event, the reason they have different opinions is that they have different criteria, different personal histories and different tastes. Spicy isn’t in itself “better” than sweet. Spicy is only better than sweet to an individual, because of the individual’s response to the experience, conditioned by experience and affected by their ideas. The same with “aesthetics”. Van Gogh’s painting of the workman’s shoe is not in itself better than the shoe ad picture of the lady’s high heeled boot. It is judged better or worse for whatever specific context by the taste of the individual, whose response is conditioned by the history of their experience in the world and affected by their ideas. Thus the arguments between two roommates in a small college dorm room. There’s one place for a poster, on the door. One wants the Van Gogh print, the other wants the shoe ad. Both pictures of shoes, both young women at the same college taking the same classes. Their taste, response and opinion, is all completely personal, individual. It isn’t vain or making a Godhead out of oneself. It is simply the way that situation works. Valuer, object, criteria equals one way or another Judgment, completely individual, completely self-referential (in the context of the wider world.)
    BenKoftheUSA

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  7. Hi again Ben

    This is a very old debate in ethics and aesthetics, which I think shouldn't be overlooked when considering the various positions. Without that historical context the highly subjectivist ethics that 'personal' taste represents can easily be mistaken for common sense i.e. it's just another take on these matters.

    There is no contradiction in recognising that different people like different things (they have different opinions) and saying that criteria of value are always shared. People are always in groups - some like motorbikes, some like fishing, some knitting etc. And within those groups there are codified and developed methods of evaluation. You could argue that there is such a thing as a lone individual valuing the world in a variety of ways, but I bet when you scratch the surface of things they're at least using some form of common language, concept or technique in what they're doing. No man or woman is an island.

    When you use the example of the shoe ad versus Van Gogh, yes you will always find people who prefer one over the other. And they will always have their reasons for preferring one over the other. It's those reasons that are the act of valuing itself - it's not legitimate to jump immediately from notcing that different people like different things to "therefore everything is personal/individual". That's like saying the only difference between blues and jazz is that some people like blues, and some jazz. Whereas what actually makes blues and jazz different is all of the different tecnniques and modes etc. that each use. And within blues and jazz there will be better or worse musicians, evaluated by those immersed in these traditions on an ongoing basis according to their learning and experience of this music. Just as happens in science and any other field as well - we know who the 'greats' are because the people in those areas are constantly doing that evaluation for us.

    However a bigger objection to the subjectivist way of appraoching questions of value is that it ignores the thing actually being valued. The object plays no role beyond being a passive lump of stuff that different people attach their preferences to. Whereas when you look at it closely the 'taste' or value emerges from the interaction of the person and the object. The object is no more a static lump of stuff than the person is. For example the greater your skills with language, the more you will discern in great novels and other writing, and yet apparently the same text is before the skilled and experienced writer as is before the novice or disinterested reader. One actually perceives more in what's before them, through long training and practice, and the language itself will multiply meanings as it is interrogated and read and re-read. Every writer knows that the meanings which emerge don't just come out of their head, but also from the language itself - for many the process of writing clarifies things because the language structures their thought in unexpected ways.

    I know that subjectivist valuation is trying to be noble and recognise each person's right to like whatever they like. That's not at issue. It's when that motivation then spreads into valuation itself that I have problems, when the actual value of something is reduced to nothing more than personal preference. That junks both the skilled art of valuation from the human side of things, and the endless variety of unexpected wonders within the things being valued themselves, depending on how we interrogate and probe them.

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